WASHINGTON – The most partisan, least productive Congress in memory has skipped out of Washington for the campaign trail.
The Senate shuttered the Capitol soon after sending President Barak Obama stopgap spending legislation that will make sure the government won’t shut down on Oct. 1. It passed early today by a 62-30 vote.
Left behind to deal with after the election is a pile of unfinished business on the budget and taxes, farm policy and legislation to save the Postal Service from insolvency.
The GOP-controlled House had beat its retreat Friday morning after taking one last, futile slap at Obama – passing a bill titled the “Stop the War on Coal Act.” The measure, dead on arrival in the Senate, was aimed at boosting the coal industry in its battle against new environmental regulations while hurting Obama’s political prospects in coal states like Ohio and Virginia.
The Democrat-controlled Senate’s middle-of-the-night session came after a spitting match between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the chamber’s Republicans over Reid’s insistence on advancing legislation by Sen. Jon Tester of Montana to boost access to public lands for hunting and fishing. Tester is perhaps the Senate’s most endangered Democrat, and Republicans protested that he was being given special treatment in a nakedly political move to boost his re-election chances.
The votes came at midnight to give senators who had scattered from Washington time to return.
The only must-do item on the get-out-of-Dodge agenda was a six-month spending measure to fulfill the bare minimum of Congress’ responsibilities by keeping the government running after the current budget year ends on Sept. 30.
The spending measure permits spending on agency operating budgets at levels agreed to under last summer’s hard-fought budget and debt deal between Obama and Capitol Hill Republicans. That’s a 0.6 percent increase from current spending rates, which represents a defeat for House Republicans, who had sought to cut about 2 percent below the budget deal and shift $8 billion from domestic programs to the Pentagon.
Reid also relented to a months-long demand by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for a vote on suspending foreign aid to the governments of Libya, Egypt and Pakistan. Paul only got 10 votes. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., however, won sweeping approval of a nonbinding resolution supporting steps to make sure Iran doesn’t develop a nuclear weapon.
It’s the earliest pre-election exit by Congress from Washington since 1960, though lawmakers will return in November after the election to deal with its stack of unfinished work.
The approval rating for the current Congress in a Gallup poll earlier this month sank to just 13 percent, the lowest ever for an election year. The GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate managed to come together with Obama to enact just 173 new laws. More are coming after the election, but the current tally is roughly half the output of a typical Congress.
Even so, political pundits say Republicans are strong favorites to keep the House while Democratic chances of keeping the Senate are on the upswing with Obama’s rise in the polls.
Following the election, lawmakers will deal with a variety of legislation, topped by the so-called fiscal cliff, which combines the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on Dec. 31 and more than $100 billion in indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts set to strike at the same time as punishment for the failure of last year’s deficit “supercommittee” to strike a deal.
Also left in limbo is the farm bill, stalled in the House due to opposition from conservative Republicans who think it doesn’t cut farm subsidies and food stamps enough and Democrats who think its food stamp cuts are too harsh.
The current farm act expires on Sept. 30 but the lapse won’t have much practical effect in the near term. Still, it’s a political black eye for Republicans, especially those from farm states like North Dakota and Iowa.